Monday, August 23, 2010

First Impressions

I have been in Senegal for almost two weeks now. While I have had time to form some initial impressions of the country, my experiences has been very limited so far – I haven’t seen much of the country, and two weeks is really not long at all to learn about a place.

The trip over here was comfortable. Our group of 60 + Peace Corps volunteers flew into Dakar’s Leopold Senghor international airport, named after Senegal’s first president, a poet, socialist and independence leader whose party, in various iterations, ruled the country from independence in 1960 (Senegal had been part of French West Africa) until 2000. We drove from the airport directly to Thies, a city of about one million people and the location of the Peace Corps training center. Thies is about an hour’s drive due east of Dakar, which is located on a long peninsula that protrudes into the Atlantic. Thies is pronounced “Chez.”

The group of Peace Corps volunteers spent the first five days ensconced within the walls of the training center; we had a lot of forms to fill out, vaccinations to receive, and classes on cultural and practical matters to attend before we were allowed to venture out into the city (classes included instruction on eating and drinking tea Senegal-style, using a squat toilet, and taking bucket baths among other things) It felt a bit odd to be kept secluded for our first few days in Senegal.

Our first day in Senegal was also the first day of Ramadan, which is observed with fasting by most of the 95% of the Senegalese population that is Muslim (children, pregnant women, and others with demanding lifestyles do not fast). I have not tried fasting, but am impressed by the will power of those who do. It must be extremely difficult to go without water during the day during this hot month of the year. So far, Senegal has seemed to have a sleepy feel to it; I wonder if this will change when Ramadan is over.

On our fifth day in Senegal, we were allowed a visit into the city. Thies’s central market neighborhood is a bustling place, with many stores and open-air stalls selling a wide variety of things – produce, cloth, electronics, tailoring services, food. One of Senegal’s main railways, from Dakar to Bamako, Mali, runs through the middle of town. Taxis, private cars and motor scooters drive along potholed streets, sometimes driving up along the sidewalk to avoid pond-size puddles (it is the middle of the rainy season now). Some large trees, like African mohagany and neem and others I don’t recognize, line some of the wide thoroughfares, which are laid out more or less in a grid. Paved streets are partially covered over by sand, which seems ubiquitous in Senegal. The city’s layout has the feel of grand ambitions, but the poverty apparent on the streets belies the plans. Disparity in wealth is apparent Thies; alongside private cars and outside walled compounds of the wealthy are beggars, including talibes, young boys sent by village families to study at Qu’ranic schools in the city, who beg for their food.

After five days at the training center in Thies, we trainees were sent out to various villages and smaller towns to live with host families and take intensive language classes as part of our community-based training. I was assigned to the small town of Ker Madaro, a twenty minute drive from Thies, along with three other volunteers and our language instructor, Aissatou Mbaye. Ker Madaro is a sleepy-feeling small town, along the main road and railway to Mali. Older women sell mangos to buses and travelers along the highway. Inside town, there is a small government health clinic and school, where we held our language classes. There are a number of large open streets and public lots in town, and big beautiful trees where people relax under the shade, sitting on plastic mats. There are many, many children. It feels like there are five people under age 10 for every one over age 20. It is right now summer break, so I don’t have a sense of how many of the kids attend school.

My host family’s name is Seck, and they live in a cinder-block house, with a tin roof, sort of in the middle of town. My host father, Malick, is probably about 60 years old and is a farmer with fields on the edge of town. He and his wife, Nogay, who I think is also about 50, have one son, Mamu, and two daughters, Aram and Nogay. Mamu is probably in his mid-twenties and spends most of his time in Dakar, where he has a job as a driver. Mamu is married to a woman named Issa. Issa gave birth to a baby boy on the day that I arrived, who will be given a name one week after birth in a baptism ceremony. Mamu’s sister, Aram, also lives in Dakar, where she has a cleaning job at the airport, but she returned to Ker Madaro to help with household work while Issa is recovering from the birth.

With three employed people in the household, the Seck family is better off than many; I have heard that almost half the population in Senegal is unemployed. Many unemployed people venture into the city in search of work, and approximately half of the country’s population now lives in the Dakar area.

While the Secks don’t have electricity, they do have a water tap in their courtyard so they don’t have to pull water from the well, at least when the tap is working. They are very generous to me, and they provide food generously to talibes who come begging in the morning and evening.

Some things in Senegal seem familiar. I have seen similar poverty while growing up in Nepal, and in some ways I think poor people live in the same way around the world, out of necessity. Cheap rubber sandals, overcrowded buses, polluting vehicles, trash heaps along the side of the road, bucket baths and squat toilets are common throughout much of the world.

However, culturally Senegal seems very new. I know very little about Islam and hope to learn more.

One striking difference between Senegal and Nepal is in the way people eat. In Nepal, there is a concept called “juto” – the idea that food shouldn’t be eaten if it is touched by others, or if it is prepared by someone from a lower caste. In Senegal, however, everyone eats together with their hands from a large communal bowl. The most common dish is ceebu jen, rice with fish and sometimes other vegetables like carrots, manioc, potato, eggplant, and bitter tomato. One eats the food that is closest to one in the bowl, and must make sure not to take too much so as to ensure everyone has enough to eat. If there is only one piece of vegetable or meat left, older family members break it up and dole it out evenly.

Greetings are a sort of ritual in Senegal. When walking down the street, it is customary to greet everyone you meet, at least in villages and small towns. “Assalamalekum! Malekum Salaam! How are you? Peace only. How is the family? Peace only. How is the work? It walks. The heat? Very hot. The rain? A lot of rain.” It can go on for minutes. The standardized greetings make it easy to pass oneself off as speaking the language better than one actually does. Questions and answers are exchanged at rapid fire speed, and people often say the greetings softly without real force to their words. Although one might see it as empty talk, it provides a way to open conversations with complete strangers.